Bright stars- Women scientists known and unknown

Many listeners are tuning into “The stars are comforting” which is currently being played on Concert FM each Sunday at 2PM. This programme follows the life of the internationally-renowned New Zealand astronomer Beatrice Hill Tinsley through her many letters to her family and the music she played or which she heard at concerts. Astronomy and music were her two great interests in life. A brilliant scientist who began her work in the America of the 1960s, Beatrice struggled to reconcile her life as a woman with her passion for astronomy so that her story is very much tied up with feminist cause. She died at the tragically early age of 37. Those who have enjoyed the radio programmme may like to read this comprehensive biography.

Syndetics book coverBright star : Beatrice Hill Tinsley, astronomer / Christine Cole Catley.
“A New Zealand hero brought out of obscurity in this fascinating 445 page biography by author Christine Cole Catley. Beatrice Hill Tinsley showed astronomers new ways of thinking and taught teachers new ways of teaching. A lover of nature and a conservationist who idealised New Zealand, she was also a musician, a feminist, a battler for zero population growth and a champion of the oppressed. Her life is a classic study in the interaction of nature and nurture, genetics and environment. It is also an inspiring and unforgettable picture of a girl determined to be a scientist who grows up in provincial New Zealand and wins through to world renown.”(Summary from www.

Rosalind Franklin’s life is one which is sometimes compared with that of Beatrice Hill Tinsley, although she lived a generation before her (she was born in 1920) – and on the other side of the world (she grew up and worked in London). Rosalind Franklin faced different problems from those faced by Beatrice – she never married and did not have children – but she suffered from male jealousy and hostility.There is a strong suggestion that her pioneering work on DNA was poached and that she was denied a share in the the Nobel prize. She also died tragically young – at the age of 38.

Syndetics book coverRosalind Franklin : the dark lady of DNA / Brenda Maddox.
“Her photographs of DNA were called “among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,” but physical chemist Rosalind Franklin never received due credit for the crucial role these played in the discovery of DNA’s structure. In this sympathetic biography, Maddox argues that sexism, egotism and anti-Semitism conspired to marginalize a brilliant and uncompromising young scientist who, though disliked by some colleagues, was a warm and admired friend to many. Franklin was born into a well-to-do Anglo-Jewish family and was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. After beginning her research career in postwar Paris she moved to Kings College, London, where her famous photographs of DNA were made. These were shown without her knowledge to James Watson, who recognized that they indicated the shape of a double helix and rushed to publish the discovery; with colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Deeply unhappy at Kings, Rosalind left in 1953 for another lab, where she did important research on viruses, including polio. Her career was cut short when she died of ovarian cancer at age 37. Maddox sees her subject as a wronged woman, but this view seems rather extreme.”(Oct. 2) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved” (Publisher Weekly)

Marie Curie preceded both these women scientists – she was born in 1867 – but she lived to a comparitively ripe age. Her work on radiation with her husband Pierre has made her a household name throughout the world and won the Nobel prize for physics for both in 1903. She herself won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1911, becoming the only woman to win two Nobel prizes and to win them in two fields. Her full and interesting life was beset with difficulties – among them the struggle to become a scientist, despite an impoverished background, and to honour her intense patriotism to her native Poland while living as a loyal French citizen. She received full recognition only after her husband’s death.

Syndetics book coverThe Curies : a biography of the most controversial family in science / Denis Brian.
“Brian notes that in a recent French poll on the greatest Frenchmen (sic) of all time, Marie Curie (1867-1934) was voted number four. The author of Einstein: A Life examines the personal and professional lives and legacy of a family that won a total of six Nobel Prizes. The controversies he treats include Madame Curie’s battles with the chauvinistic French science community and affair with a married scientist after Pierre’s death. The biography includes photos. Annotation ©2005 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (” (Syndetics summary)

The three women scientists featured here are found in this book too, but it also highlights the work of many others whose names have been forgotten or obliterated. It raises interesting and timely questions about the paucity of top women scientists in the modern world, despite the fact that girls excel in examinations and repeatedly outstrip boys in the discipline.

Syndetics book coverScientists anonymous : great stories of women in science / Patricia Fara.“Why, when girls outstrip boys in exams, are there still so few women in the top levels of science? Why have women been excluded and is there still discrimination? Acclaimed science writer and children’s author Patricia Fara investigates science past and present to find the answers. She examines women scientists’ struggle against unequal opportunities, and shows how they have succeeded despite the obstacles stacked against them. The renowned names are here – Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Rosalind Franklin – but Scientists Anonymous also reveals the forgotten contributions of many other dedicated and brilliant women. Combining history, science and biography, Fara presents the stories of female explorers, mathematicians, astronomers and chemists from all over the world.”(Book summary